Katie Brennan: Australia's AFL accused of gender discrimination

Katie Brennan says she should face the same penalty as a male player. Courtesy: BBC

The captain of an Australian rules football team has launched a high-profile gender discrimination complaint after she was banned from playing in her league’s biggest match. 

Katie Brennan was suspended from the Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) for a rough tackle last week.

A similar offence in the men’s league would attract a fine, not a suspension.

Brennan has taken her case to the Australian Human Rights Commission. League officials have denied sexism.

What was wrong with the tackle?

Australian rules football is a contact sport that involves two teams of 18 people who use their feet or hands to move an oval-shaped ball.

Players tackle by wrapping their arms around an opponent and dragging them to the ground.

Brennan’s tackle was deemed illegal because her opponent’s head hit the ground – a rule designed to prevent concussion. The opponent appeared shaken but continued playing. 

A tribunal ruled that Brennan had used excessive force, and banned her from leading the Western Bulldogs in the AFLW Grand Final on Saturday.

What is Brennan alleging?

Brennan has asserted that her suspension is a “fundamental breach” of Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act.

She argues that AFL rules stipulate a lesser penalty in the men’s game, citing incidents involving players Jack Redden and Ben Howlett last year. 

“I believe my tackle on [opponent] Harriet Cordner was reasonable and I strongly disagree with the guilty finding,” she said in a statement on Friday.

“It is even more troubling to know that if I was a man playing in the AFL and was reported for the identical tackle, I would not have been suspended and I would be playing in a grand final tomorrow.” 

What does the league say?

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said it was unfair to call Brennan’s case an example of sexism.

“I guess I would say that in different competitions, we have different rules,” he said on Melbourne radio station 3AW.

However, he said the current rules would be reviewed.

“It will definitely be looked at, whether there’s change is a different issue. I think there’s a fair question to be asked there,” he said.

Western Bulldogs chief executive Ameet Bains said: “We share Katie’s view that her suspension was wrong and we will fully support her challenging the AFL rules on the basis of gender discrimination.”

What happens now?

Brennan will seek to overturn her suspension through the Australian Human Rights Commission – an independent statutory body that is government-funded. The commission resolves matters through conciliation.

There will be no outcome before Saturday, but Brennan said her main aim was to make rules consistent between AFL and AFLW.

“The fight for gender equality is as every bit as important to me as the grand final,” she said.

AFLW began as a professional competition only last year. It has faced controversy over why its players are paid significantly less than men.